One of the luxuries of democracy is that we don’t have to listen. Or we can listen and hear what we want to hear. We can find resonance in dissonance, or we can hear flat notes.
That is the story of the climate crisis, which is here.
We have been warned over and over, sometimes as gently as a summer zephyr, and sometimes gustily, as with Al Gore’s tireless campaigning and his seminal 1992 book, and later movie, “Earth in the Balance.”
Now the summer is upon us — with its intimations of worse to come. And this message rings in our ears: The climate is changing — polar ice caps are melting; the sea level is rising; the oceans are heating up; natural patterns are changing, whether it be for sharks or butterflies; and we are going to have to live with a world that we, in some measure, have thrown out of kilter.
Around the beginning of the 20th century, we began an attack on the environment, the likes of which all of history hadn’t seen, including two centuries of industrial revolution. Sadly, it was when invention began improving the lives of millions of people.
Two big forces were unleashed in the early 20th century: the harnessing of electricity and the perfection of the internal combustion engine. These improved life immensely, but there was a downside: They brought with them air pollution and, at the time unknown, started the greenhouse effect.
In the same wave of inventions, we pushed back the ravages of infectious diseases, boosted irrigated farming and enabled huge growth in the world population — all of whom aspired to a better life with electricity and cars.
In 1900, the world population was 1.6 billion. Now it is 8 billion. The population of India alone has increased by about a billion since the British withdrawal in 1947. Most Indians don’t have cars, jet off for their vacations or have enough, or any, electricity, and very few have air conditioning. Obviously, they are aspirational, as are the 1.4 billion people of Africa, most of whom have nothing. But the population of Africa is set to double in 25 years.
The greenhouse effect has been known and argued about for a long time. Starting in 1970, I became aware of it as I started covering energy intensively. I have sat through climate sessions at places like the Aspen Institute, Harvard and MIT, where it was a topic and where the sources of the numbers were discussed, debated, questioned and analyzed.
Oddly, the environmental movement didn’t take up the cause then. It was engaged in a battle to the death with nuclear power. To prosecute its war on nuclear, it had to advocate something else, and that something else was coal: coal in a form of advanced boilers, but nonetheless coal.
The Arab oil embargo of 1973 added to the move to coal. At that point, there was little else, and coal was held out as our almost inexhaustible energy source: coal to liquid, coal to gas, coal in direct combustion. Very quiet voices on the effects of burning so much coal had no hearing. It was a desperate time needing desperate measures.
Natural gas was assumed to be a depleted resource (fracking wasn’t perfected); wind was a scheme, as today’s turbines, relying heavily on rare earths, hadn’t been created, nor had the solar electric cell. So, the air took a shellacking.
To its credit, the Biden administration has been cognizant of the building crisis. With three acts of Congress, it is trying to tackle the problem — albeit in a somewhat incoherent way.
Some of its plans just aren’t going to work. It is pushing so hard against the least troublesome fossil fuel, natural gas, that it might destabilize the whole electric system. The administration has set a goal that by 2050 — just 27 years from now — power production should produce no greenhouse gases whatsoever, known as net-zero.
To reach this goal, the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing strict new standards. However, these call for the deployment of carbon capture technology which, as Jim Matheson, CEO of the Rural Electric Cooperative Association, told a United States Energy Association press briefing, doesn’t exist.
The crisis needs addressing, but panic isn’t a tool. A mad attack on electric utilities, the demonizing of cars or air carriers, or less environmentally aware countries won’t carry us forward.
Awareness and technology are the tools that will turn the tide of climate change and its threat to everything. It took a century to get here, and it may take that long to get back.